Archive | January, 2014

Israel – the Land of High-Priced Milk… and Honey

18 Jan

From my rooftop balcony in Kfar Tavor, Galilee, I see the smoke stacks of Tnuva Industries.  It’s the largest dairy plant in the Middle East.  Every day, hundreds of trucks bring in the raw milk for processing.Food2

For most Israelis, lunch is the heavy meal of the day.  It includes chicken or beef, and rarely fish although the Mediterranean is a stone throw away.  Dinner is the “light” meal of the day: typically scrambled eggs, dices tomatoes and cucumbers, olives, and lots and lots of dairy products: milk, cottage cheese, cream cheese, yogurt.

One of the reasons for leaving Los Angeles was the belief that the cost of living is lower in Israel, that food prices are cheaper.


It’s not even a contest.  Consider that Israelis, on average,  earn 1/2 of their American counterparts and the food price comparison becomes obscene.food1

Take a quart of milk, for example.  In Israel it costs $1.85 a quart or $7.50 per gallon.  And since you’re making half, it’s as if it cost $15 in the U.S.

If this were to happen in the U.S., there would be blood, I mean, milk in the streets.

But here, people complain and groan and continue to drink.  Why?  Tnuva Industries is a monopoly, controlling 85% of the dairy market.  Which is why it can charge the U.S. equivalent of $3.50 for a small container of cottage cheese, and $9.50 for 10 ounces of “Swiss” cheese.

I love beer.  But at $12.85 for a six-pack of Goldstar (think double, remember? $25.70), I measure my consumption of the lovely beverage.

The price of bread is outrageous.  A sliced loaf will cost you $5.00 (think $10).

Apples?  $2.10 per pound (think $4.20/pound).

A bag of frozen peas?  $3.80/pound (think $7.60).  Why so much? Are there little people with little fingers counting those little green pease before they put them in the little bag?  Or is the cost of ice?

How about some cereal with your expensive milk?  Then empty your wallet of $6.50 ($13).Food3

Want lunch with chicken breast?  $3.75/pound (think $7.50)

Even fruits and vegetables, the main staple of the Israeli diet, is not within the reach of many.  What’s irritating is that top-quality produce is flown daily to grocery stores in Berlin, London, Amsterdam, yet here, in Israel, second-grade produce costs more.

That’s a lot of fertilizer on your face.

Elite-Strauss is a giant food cartel.  They monopolize everything on the supermarket shelf, from chocolate to coffee, to snacks, to cheeses, to ice cream.  Osem Industries, another food powerhouse, control pastas, rice, sugar, flour. Telma controls cereals, soups, canned goods.

Unlike countries in Europe, Israel imports less food.  There’s no competition.  And if there are imports to be had, guess who the European exporters partner with?  You got it: Osem, Elite and Tnuva.  They have s small army of lawyers who are able to decipher the red tape, the cost, the paperwork, the crazy documentation needed to import food into Israel.Food4

What’s absurd is that Israeli-grown food costs double here than it does in England.  Raisins cost double in Tel Aviv than in London.  Same for dried apples. Walnuts costs more.  And the list goes on.

A recent survey found Israeli food to be 30% more expensive than European.  Germans and French earn more, so do the math.

There are multiple reasons for the high prices but none are convincing.  The giant food companies say that the Israeli market is too small, fewer consumers, therefore, it has more operating costs, hence the higher price.  Belgium and Portugal have similar population size as Israel’s and their prices are much lower.

Kosher laws add to cost, food producers explain.  It’s not a reason, but an excuse to raise prices, to pin it on the “fall guy.”

To keep their market share, these big companies control the supermarkets.  They dictate the prices, give incentives for displaying their products on the shelves, and penalize them for introducing a competitor.

Supermarkets are tacit allies.  They can’t afford not to cooperate.  Products will be pulled off.  A small importer wanted to introduce the famous Cadbury chocolate.  Suggested retail price?  Half.  Elite squashed them.

So how do we get by?fruit

We buy imported beer when they’re on sale.  We stock up.  We gave up milk for health reasons; we use just a little to splash our morning coffee.  Instead, we grind almonds, throw in soft dates, and hit “blend.”  The result? A refreshing light almond milk drink.

We hardly eat cheeses.

Bread?  My wife bakes, instead.  Or we buy great tasting whole-wheat pita bread from the Arab villages.

In 2011, thousands of Israelis flocked to the streets in protest.  A grassroots movement came into being.  Tents were pitched on fashionable Rothchild Blvd in Tel-Aviv.  Television crews came and went.  Debates were held on TV and radio.  It was called the “Cottage Cheese Protest.”

The Big Companies said they’re listening to their consumers.  They promised change.  In time, prices came down. Very little.

The tents in Rothchild folded.  People went

It’s back to business as usual.

I’m going to take a break now.  Pour myself a frothy beer.  Watch the golden color.  Sip.  Then dip our homemade bread in olive oil, and watch the world turn.

The Big Guys get all the breaks.



Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at

or at

Circumcision. Take one. Action. Cut!

4 Jan

I’m driving in Galilee on my way to Nazareth.  The radio is tuned to a weekly Family Therapy talk show.  A man calls in.  He’s all choked up.  The woman therapist calms him.  The man says: “My daughter gave birth to a boy.  I’m a grandfather.  She refuses to circumcise my grandson.  What should I do?!”

The woman therapists who’s very attentive and supportive can’t help but be professional, too.  “Ultimately, it will be your daughter’s decision.  But you must put your foot down.  Tell her your thoughts, your feelings.  You must.  This is no time to be a liberal, to experiment.”

Jewish circumcision performed

A Jewish “Mohel” performs circumcision

Circumcision of Jewish boys is a rite that’s been going on for thousands of years.  It’s as natural as drawing air into the lungs.  In fact, 98% of all Jewish males in Israel are circumcised, no matter the political spectrum or religious affiliation, orthodox or secular.

Yet not all is calm in Israel today.  Young couples question the ritual.  They’re fed up with the Rabbinical tight noose around their necks, telling them how and whom they can marry, and how to rear their infants.

The objecting parents regard the practice as primitive.  Once the foreskin has been cut away from the penis, it’s irreversible.  Almost.  Secondly, no one asked the eight-day old boy for his consent.  The baby has no voice, no “rights.”

A little history: God commands the Hebrew Patriarch Abraham to tie up his son Isaac and slaughter him as an offering.  Abraham obeys.  God calls it off.  Isaac is spared.  Through a covenant, God promises Abraham his “seed” will be plentiful; he will become a vast nation.  He commands him to circumcise his son to seal the deal.  Imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind — I’m commanded to kill my son.  Then God has second thoughts.  He then tells me to cut off my son’s foreskin, and mine, instead.  Lucky me!

God is very specific about a lot of things.  In the Book of Genesis, God tells Noah precisely how to build the Ark for the coming flood, which animals to bring on board.  In the Book of Leviticus, God tells the People of Israel precisely how animals should be slaughtered, how the land should be planted and harvested, issues regarding incest, orphans, sacrifices, the duties of the priests.

However, God’s command to circumcise comes without an Owner’s Manual.  God is silent on how to cut.  Maybe it wasn’t the foreskin (ערלה) after all.  Plucking a few pubic hairs off the balls would have been just fine.

We will never know.

Emperor Hadrian did not approve the mutilation of the body

Emperor Hadrian did not approve the mutilation of the body

Objection to circumcision goes back centuries.  Roman Emperor Hadrian in the year 131 AD ruled over Israel.  The Jewish Temple lay in ruins.  He was greatly influenced by Greek culture that worshiped the human body.  To him, circumcision mutilated the perfect body.  He persecuted the Jews over it.  A revolt broke out.  Hadrian had to recruit generals and troops from as far away as Britain(!) and the Danube to put down the revolt.  That’s how strongly the Jews believed in their God-given right.

But why do it?

Covenant with God, I get that.  Any other reason?  To make the Jews different from all other nations?  That’s one explanation.  But Jews didn’t invent the practice.  Pagans and Ancient Egyptians circumcised their boys too.

Circumcision in Ancient Egypt

Circumcision in Ancient Egypt

“Cut off your penis in the morning, build a pyramid in the afternoon.”

And no bonus and no overtime.  No wonder the pyramids resembled erections.

The “Rambam,” also known as Moses Maimonides, was a much-loved and revered medieval scholar, Jewish Rabbi, philosopher and physician in 12th century Egypt.  He wrote commentary on the bible.  Here’s his belief on the merits of circumcision from his book “The Guide of the Perplexed”:

“One of the reasons for circumcision is the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible…. and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished.”

Quick!  Does someone have the phone number for a good plastic surgeon?

Rambam explains why the ritual is performed eight days after birth:

“The first is that if the child were let alone until he grew up, he would sometimes not perform it. The second is that a child does not suffer as much pain as a grown-up man because his membrane is still soft and his imagination weak;” 

He concludes his reasoning that the parents’ attachment to the child is not as strong days after birth.  If the circumcision were to be performed after three or four years, for example, the parents might refuse inflicting pain.

England.  1966.  I’m an elven year-old Israeli in a London school.  As part of physical education, my classmates and I board a school bus on a half-hour ride to an indoor swimming pool.  In the locker room I remove my underwear to put on my swim trunks.  I’m shocked to find that my Little Sausage is different from the English boys.  That day, I didn’t swim well.  I sank.  When I got home, I asked my dad: “What’s wrong with me?”

Circumcision tools of the trade

Circumcision tools of the trade

And that’s just it.  As a boy, as a man, you don’t want to stand out from the crowd.  Definitely not in the Israeli military.

“You’re in the Army now!”

And this is what the family therapist was alluding to during the radio call.  Young men are vulnerable about their sexuality.  The last thing they need is to be ridiculed, to be sidelined, to be ostracized.  Men in the army should all be G.I – General Issue – they wear the same uniform, the same boots, carry the same gun, and carry a standard-looking penis….

The Israeli army is the ultimate “melting pot.”

Some secular Israelis rail against the orthodox, yet when it comes to circumcision, it’s a different story.  They swallow their pride, their views, and go on with the business at hand — kicking and screaming.  As the father of daughters I didn’t have to decide.  But if I had a son, I would follow generations before me.

It’s something innate: You can’t mess with a 4000 year tradition.

What do you think?  For?  Against?

Even Russian male adults who’d immigrated to Israel in the 1990s; they were mostly uncircumcised because of communism’s banning of religion — they had to be circumcised as part of becoming Jewish.

“Welcome to Israel, Comrade.  Now drop your pants.”

This blog is getting a little long.  I think I should “cut” here.


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at

or at